The Cambridge Quintet: A Work of Scientific Speculation

The Cambridge Quintet: A Work of Scientific Speculation

by John L. Casti, J . L . Casti

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In this narrative tour de force, gifted scientist and author John L. Casti contemplates an imaginary evening of intellectual inquiry—a sort of "My Dinner with” not Andre, but five of the most brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century.Imagine, if you will, one stormy summer evening in 1949, as novelist and scientist C. P. Snow, Britain’s


In this narrative tour de force, gifted scientist and author John L. Casti contemplates an imaginary evening of intellectual inquiry—a sort of "My Dinner with” not Andre, but five of the most brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century.Imagine, if you will, one stormy summer evening in 1949, as novelist and scientist C. P. Snow, Britain’s distinguished wartime science advisor and author of The Two Cultures, invites four singular guests to a sumptuous seven-course dinner at his alma mater, Christ’s College, Cambridge, to discuss one of the emerging scientific issues of the day: Can we build a machine that could duplicate human cognitive processes? The distinguished guest list for Snow’s dinner consists of physicist Erwin Schrodinger, inventor of wave mechanics; Ludwig Wittgenstein, the famous twentieth-century philosopher of language, who posited two completely contradictory theories of human thought in his lifetime; population geneticist/science popularizer J.B.S. Haldane; and Alan Turing, the mathematician/codebreaker who formulated the computing scheme that foreshadowed the logical structure of all modern computers. Capturing not only their unique personalities but also their particular stands on this fascinating issue, Casti dramatically shows what each of these great men might have argued about artificial intelligence, had they actually gathered for dinner that midsummer evening.With Snow acting as referee, a lively intellectual debate unfolds. Philosopher Wittgenstein argues that in order to become conscious, a machine would have to have life experiences similar to those of human beings—such as pain, joy, grief, or pleasure. Biologist Haldane offers the idea that mind is a separate entity from matter, so that regardless of how sophisticated the machine, only flesh can bond with that mysterious force called intelligence. Both physicist Schrodinger and, of course, computer pioneer Turing maintain that it is not the substance, but rather the organization of that substance, that makes a mind conscious.With great verve and skill, Casti recreates a unique and thrilling moment of time in the grand history of scientific ideas. Even readers who have already formed an opinion on artificial intelligence will be forced to reopen their minds on the subject upon reading this absorbing narrative. After almost four decades, the solutions to the epic scientific and philosophical problems posed over this meal in C. P. Snow’s old rooms at Christ’s College remains tantalizingly just out of reach, making this adventure into scientific speculation as valid today as it was in 1949.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Casti calls this book a work of scientific fiction. He has created a narrative in which five scientistsC.P. Snow, J.B.S. Haldane, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrodinger, and Alan Turingare invited to dinner to discuss whether machines will ever be able to think like human beings. He is well versed in the scientific positions of each of his characters as well as their personal characteristics and blends both together in a work that reads more like fiction than science. And the interaction of the five individuals, pairs of whom actually did know each other, gives the author a wealth of viewpoints to contrast to bring out the strength and weaknesses of their various arguments. But what does this work actually represent, aside from Casti's speculation and philosophical interpretation? He presents his ideas enthusiastically and clearly, but we are left with no more answers than the more recent artificial intelligence (AI) debates producedwhich perhaps says more about the lack of progress of AI than about Casti's protagonists. Hilary Burton, Lawrence Livermore National Lab., Livermore, CA
John D. Barrow
[Santa Fe Institute scientist Casti] has invented an evening of spirited over-dinner arguments [among C.P. Snow, Ludwig Wittgenstein, J.B.S. Haldane, Erwin Schroedinger and Alan Turing] to unveil the problems faced by machine intelligence. -- John D. Barrow
Michio Kaku
Witty, fast-paced, engaging, and always riveting. -- Michio Kaku
Kirkus Reviews
A fictional dialogue between five seminal modern thinkers, on the thorny subject of artificial intelligence. Casti (Would-Be Worlds, 1996) postulates that in June of 1949, the British government asks physicist and novelist C.P. Snow to sound out the scientific community on the subject of "thinking machines." In response, Snow throws a special dinner at Cambridge for mathematician Alan Turing, geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, physicist Erwin Schr"dinger, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This book is an account of their imaginary meeting, as well as a portrait of these five remarkable personalities. By 1949, Turing's mathematics had laid the groundwork for the idea of a programmable computer, which he explains to the other guests to begin the discussion. At first, the gruff Haldane acts as the voice of "common sense," asking what a simple "Turing Machine" is actually good for. Schr"dinger is quicker to see the mathematical implications, but Wittgenstein questions whether a finite machine can mimic any natural phenomenon at all, let alone one as complex as thought. Over the course of the evening, Turing continues to explain his ideas (including the "Turing test") using various dishes and implements as the dinner progresses, while the urbane Snow acts as host and master of ceremonies. The others offer insights or criticisms of Turing's model, bringing in such familiar concepts as the "Chinese room" (here recast in terms of hieroglyphics) in which a translator merely manipulates symbols without understanding them; can he be said to think? The holes in the various arguments are exposed, and many of the central ideas of today's artificial-intelligence debates are clearly outlined in thesediscussions. While Casti's attempts to blend exposition and dialogue are wooden, he does a good job of laying out the key philosophical issues raised by artificial intelligence, and of delineating the thought of these five men. Historians of science will enjoy this imaginary meeting of minds; others may find the fare too esoteric.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.72(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.87(d)

Meet the Author

John L. Casti, a member of the faculty of both the Santa Fe Institute and the Technical Unviersity of Vienna, has written numerous acclaimed popular scinece books, including Would-be Worlds, Five Golden Rules, and The Cambridge Quintet.

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